While the lavish spectacle and surprising heart of Alita make it a great time at the theater, uneven performances and a mediocre script squander its potential.
(Written by D. Matthew Beyer // Edited by Andrew Busch // All media sourced from Fox Movies)
Alita: Battle Angel is my favorite kind of bad movie. Like Venom and Aquaman before it, Alita is a great time despite not actually being a good movie, a dubious honor that I will happy bestow upon any films that deserve it. While the lavish spectacle and surprising heart of Alita make it worth the price of admission, uneven performances and a mediocre script squander its potential.
Alita: Battle Angel has been in development hell for so long it’s amazing that the final product is as watchable as it is. Without getting into the details- which are fascinating, but beyond the scope of this review- James Cameron has been trying to get this made for a long time, and finally realized the project by enlisting Laeta Kalogridis’s help with the script and Robert Rodriguez to direct. Despite ostensibly being the product of three established filmmakers, Alita ultimately feels like a James Cameron production.
The film anchors around the titular cyber-girl, played by a digitally enhanced Rosa Salazar. A humanitarian doctor, Dyson Ito (Christoph Waltz), finds her core components in a scrapyard while salvaging tech from the floating city’s trash to use as cybernetics for the Iron City’s ground-dwelling workforce. Ito rebuilds her and then acts as her adoptive father, helping Alita navigate the perils of coming of age and coming to terms with her mysterious past.
While the story isn’t particularly groundbreaking, it comes across with a surprising sincerity in this age of sarcastic quips and ironic nods to the audience. The scenes in which Alita develops her first crush on a boy (Keean Johnson, details to come) and experiences the joys of being human because of a bite of chocolate play just as straight as the pulse-pounding action scenes where the film earns its subtitle. It’s refreshing to see an action film about a teenage girl attempting to engage in the everyday reality of teenage girls, even if the attempt is filtered through the stereotypical assumptions about what the everyday reality of a teenage girl is like. Rodriguez’s influence manifests here, as he manages to keep the tone consistent between action and adolescence. It’s one of his strengths as a director that we haven’t seen him explore since the first Spy Kids.
As far as science fiction blockbuster worlds go, Alita’s Iron City isn’t particularly new or intriguing, another analogue for classism between the downtrodden ground-dwellers and the devious (and unseen!) sky dwellers. Despite being a mashup of a ton of things we’ve seen before, Cameron and company go to baffling lengths to build this perfunctory world. Waltz in particular constantly spouts exposition about how the world came to be the way it is, setting up for a payoff that never comes. I left the theatre with several lingering lacunas in my mind. Why does everyone live in Iron City, if the outside world is verdant and clearly capable of sustaining life? What bureaucratic mishap got Alita’s core, mechanical components of considerable value, thrown out with the garbage? These sort of lingering questions break the immersion in Alita‘s world.
All of that being said, Alita’s visuals impress, even if the visual DNA is a chimera of other, more imaginative films. The desert dystopia of Iron City is one part Mad Max and one part Ghost in the Shell, filtered through a loose understanding of what makes someone a “cyborg.” A majority of the minor characters sport more mechanical limbs than meat parts, which feels like a setup for an interesting commentary on the nature of humanity’s reliance on technology that the film never makes. The rusty shantytown comes alive once night falls and the neon comes on, nailing the post-apocalypse punk vibe. While I’m not a fan of James Cameron’s recent tendency to build lavish, intricate worlds at the expense of the characters that inhabit them, I have to admit his visual sensibilities are astounding. If you judge films on spectacle alone, you’ll adore Battle Angel. See it in 3D or IMAX if possible—it was clearly intended for the biggest screens.
The action scenes—most of which center around Alita playing what amounts to robocidal roller derby—likewise amaze. The action scenes are fun and frenetic, but they drag on a little too long. Cameron and company get so enamored with the spectacle of cyber-carnage that they forget that the emotional stakes of a fight are just as— if not more— important than the fight itself. Plus you get to watch Christoph Waltz fight killer cyborgs with a “gunhammer” straight out of Final Fantasy, which is every bit as awesome and possibly more ridiculous than it sounds.
The film has style to spare, but the lack of substance is what makes it ultimately disappointing. The characters all hum with untapped narrative potential energy, which makes the missed opportunity even clearer. It’s no fault of the the cast, as the ensemble is comprised of capable character actors with one noticeable exception. The actors spend the movie in search of a better script that engages with the human themes at the core of Alita which the creative team keeps sidelining in favor of more unnecessary world-building. Waltz does his best with the material provided, but the script doesn’t offer him the opportunity to delve deeper into his character. Jennifer Connolly also suffers from a lack of interiority, as the genuinely interesting narrative threads binding her henchwoman mad-scientist to Waltz and Alita are left unexplored. Mahershala Ali meets the material on its terms, however, leaving no scenery unchewed. He knows he’s playing a by the numbers cyberpunk villain, and he’s having fun with it.
Salazar also deserves praise here, as her performance as Alita makes the film worth watching. She sells the sincere teenage girl plot elements as well as the badass battle angel, and most impressively of all her performance makes the anime eyes work. A lesser actor’s Alita would be a refugee from the uncanny valley, the oversized eyes unnerving in their obvious inhumanity, but Salazar makes the eyes work for her.
Unfortunately, Keean Johnson was apparently cast because he looks the part of the teen-heartthrob scrapper boy, not because he could carry the role. The film’s latter half suffers from his wooden acting, with several crucial plot reveals and character motivating moments for Alita falling flat due to Johnson’s inability to infuse his character with necessary nuance. The role plays him; he’s not in control.
If there is a problem with these (mostly) strong performances, it is that the actors are on the same page of several different books. Waltz and Salazar think they’re doing high concept science fiction, Ali and Connolly seem respectively ecstatic and resigned to be in a pulp piece, and Johnson appears to be a transplant from a teen melodrama.
Clearly Cameron believes there’s enough material to make a sequel to Alita: Battle Angel, though we’ll have to see if the box office agrees with him. I think I do, honestly, even with my multiple gripes with the finished film. There’s always room for more warm-blooded science fiction in Hollywood, and I think the human heart beating beneath all the digital excess is worth investing in. The characters here are compelling, and the world could be interesting if Cameron stopped trying to explain it and just let it breathe. Teenage girls need action movie heroes to look up to just as much as teenage boys, and Alita is a great one. Hopefully her next film lives up to the promise of the heroine.